When we do something that makes us feel good, like eating a good meal or beating a video game, our brain rewards us with a little bit of dopamine, which makes us feel really good. We want to engage in that behavior again – no matter what the consequence might be. Humans can get addicted to gambling in the same way they can get addicted to opiates and cocaine.
In fact, compulsive gambling was classified as an addiction in the American Psychiatric Association’s update to its diagnostic manual in 2013. Surveys indicate that there are about two million problem gamblers in the United States, but addiction can’t account for the vast amounts of money that are being wagered and lost. What accounts for all those other gamblers? Sure, their limbic reward system gives them some sweet dopamine for playing, but why do they continue to play if they aren’t actually addicted? It turns out, there are a couple of ways that people tend to think that keep them at the casinos.
Behavioral economist David Ewing identified one mechanic as the Gambler’s Conceit. The idea is that people who are gambling tend to believe that they can stop taking risks, even while they continue to take risks. A person sitting at a blackjack table, having lost hundreds of dollars, can very often convince themselves that they’ll quit as soon as they win their money back. That doesn’t often work as planned. The games are designed so that the house has an advantage, and the player is, in aggregate, unlikely to win those losses back. But the player is also unlikely to quit if they do win the money back.
They have little incentive to quit while they’re winning. Another concept that keeps people gambling is the Gambler’s Fallacy. Remember that illusion of control we mentioned earlier? This is kind of similar. The gambler’s fallacy is the idea that a player can predict what’s going to happen during a game, based on what has already happened in a casino game. Remember, these are games of chance and they’re all based on random number generators.
Some of them are more purely random than others, but they’re random for a reason. So that players can’t predict what happens. The Gambler’s Fallacy is nicely illustrated by the game of Roulette. Players assume that because a certain number has not appeared in a while, it will be more likely to appear in the future. Nope.
Or that since a certain number has appeared frequently, it is unlikely to appear again. Also, nope. That logic is flawed because the odds are reset with every roll, and the past doesn’t influence future rolls. A lot of casinos play into this fallacy though, by posting a board by the roulette table showing the last several rolls, which can “help” players predicts future spins. So gambling has been with us for millennia, all the way from the ancient casting of lots to the modern practice of playing tic-tac-toe against chickens. And the basic wiring of human brains, and the ways that risk and reward affect us will ensure us that we’ll be gambling for millennia to come.
So, be sure to quit while you’re ahead. If you can. In the end, we can only paraphrase America’s foremost expert on gambling, country music legend Kenny Rogers, and admit we’re in no position to advise on when you should hold them, or when you should fold them, when to walk away, or when to run. I will suggest you quit counting that money while you’re sitting at the table.